David Gleeson, 2004, UK/Ireland/Germany, 89 mins
Michael Legge, Allen Leech, Amy Shiels, Frank Kelly, David Murray
Cowboys & Angels seems to be causing excitement amongst Irish film fans at the moment for being only the second feature film set in Limerick (Angela's Ashes was the first). That the film also touches on cross-dressing, homosexuality and drug dealing has had less impact. The fact that its location has become more important than these other alluring subject matters says much about a film that only scratches the surface of the downright dirty expectations it promises. The tagline for Cowboys & Angels tempts with: "How far you go is up to you", a neat pun on sexuality, drug taking and career choice. Unfortunately for Cowboys & Angels the latter gets more exposure.
First time feature writer and director David Gleeson has penned a story about what he sees as a new young breed of Irish people, swept up by unprecedented prosperity in Ireland post-EU membership. With this, Gleeson says, can also come a corruption of values through loss of identity, and ultimately loneliness in a society too quick to marginalise the disaffected. So far so good. But what starts with a provoking premise, in the end spreads itself too thin too soon.
Boring and straight Shane (Legge) comes to Limerick city to start a job in the civil service. He shares a flat with flamboyant, gay fashion student Vincent (Leech), who takes it upon himself to bring Shane out of his duffle coat and give him some much needed street cred. When Shane gets involved with drug dealers, Vincent realises he may have gone too far, and the pair's relationship is pushed to the limits, particularly when Shane falls for Vincent's best friend Gemma (Shiels).
One of the most frustrating things about this film is its potential to be more interesting. Verging on resembling a pilot for Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, one longs for Shane and Vincent to get together and explore gay life in Limerick , or Shane to become a hardened junkie and so take a trip to the city's seedier side. But perhaps Gleeson didn't want his film pigeon-holed as gay-genre or another Trainspotting. Instead he's ended up with a film that doesn't quite know where it lays, and lacks grit and bite.
Gleeson uses the backdrop of his native Limerick to good effect. With director of photography Volker Tittel, he uses colour and location well to mirror Shane's metamorphosis from V-neck jumpered clerk to smouldering night-club drug mule. The film opens with the steel blues and greys of the city, warming slowly to hot reds and golds as Shane grows spiritually and spends more time with the arty Vincent. As the camera swoops up and over the city and out to the ocean, so we are effectively reminded of the limitless possibilities Shane has outside the one-dimensional world of the dead-end office job.
Story and plot are ably skipped along by the relatively inexperienced leads (you will see Alan Leech in Man About Dog , Amy Shiels in Victoria Guerin and Michael Legge in Angela's Ashes), who are likeable and work hard, but ultimately lack enough screen presence to make a lasting impact. Legge and Leech never really seem comfortable in their roles, Leech doing the fairy queen turn like he's been watching too many American sitcoms, and Legge not quite convincing enough as his accepting flatmate. Frank Kelly (otherwise known as drunk Father Jack in TV series Father Ted), adds much needed weight.
The film ends on a positive note and was clearly made as a feelgood rather than raw rights of passage. Happiness and hope are wonderful things to make films about, but how much better this hope would have been if Cowboys & Angels had been brave enough to plunge greater depths. Intermission is proof that this can be done and still be enjoyable. Also the message that Shane's life has more meaning now that he has left the civil service and immersed himself in Vincent's one long catwalk life is debateable. Gleeson who left the civil service to work in films is testament to this, so he should know. For the time being his characters aren't convincing proselytes, but will leave you smiling and moderately entertained.